The next great battle in the journalism industry will be the Battle of Bandwidth.
AT&T’s announcement this month that it will end unlimited data plans for its smartphone and iPad subscribers is expected to lead to similar announcements from other wireless providers. And Comcast’s continuing efforts to throttle certain traffic from its home Internet customers shows that bandwidth battles are not limited to the wireless Web.
Internet Service Providers clearly don’t want to continue offering a one-price-buys-everything option. ISPs have shown that they favor a pricing model where certain users have to pay more to use more bandwidth.
While there’s some logical appeal to the idea of making the heaviest users of the Internet pay the most for their use, metered traffic online creates profound challenges for online content producers.
Think back (if you’ve been online for more than a decade) to when online services such as Prodigy and CompuServe charged by the minute. How much time did you spend online back then, compared with today? One might argue that the availability of more powerful devices and connection plans have enabled people to spend more time online. But one also could argue that without unmetered access, there’d have been much less, and perhaps no, demand for such online capacity.
With unmetered online access, developers and entrepreneurs are developing a wide range of bandwidth-intensive applications, from Netflix’s online streaming service for movies and television to Virtual Private Networks that allow companies to share data, video and audio among far-flung employees without having to buy their own telecom lines.
Of course, some of those new applications – especially Netflix’s – threaten well-established business models and practices at ISPs. Cable companies that make billions of dollars by selling people subscriptions to a set line-up of television channels (as well as by selling channel producers places on those line-ups), don’t want to see the likes of Netflix providing an alternative medium for watching TV shows. Telephone companies don’t want to see a dozen Skypes offering unlimited, flat-rate or free voice and video calling over the ‘net. For these corporations, bandwidth metering isn’t simply about cost containment on the ISP side; it’s a way to protect their core businesses from competition.
In an opinion piece in Salon last week, Dan Gillmor made a case for the federal government expanding broadband coverage through a comparison to U.S. postal subsidies for newspapers, which began in the 18th Century.
Allow me to add another analogy – the Rural Electrification Act. While the Post Office Act of 1792 encouraged the free flow of information around the young American nation, the REA helped lift millions of rural Americans out of poverty and into a national marketplace.
Rural electrification allowed rural households to have the power that they needed to light their homes, run machinery, refrigerate more food and work their land to a scale impossible before. It allowed them to escalate their level of economic activity, in addition to providing a higher standard of living.
Affordable comprehensive national broadband could do the same. Not only would it lead to a more informed citizenry, it would give the people of the United States an important tool with which they could become more engaged in a national (and international) marketplace.
Gillmor argued that the government’s subsidy of broadband would be a more appropriate way for the federal government to support journalism than to provide direct payment to establishment media.
I agree. Payments to establishment media fund a limited number of existing voices. Expanded broadband coverage – in both geographical reach and availability of more bandwidth to all – would create fertile ground for the growth of many more voices.
This is the battle that will be fought in the courts and in Congress over the next months, and years. Will we allow a limited number of broadband ISPs to use their market power to limit the bandwidth that consumers and producers may access? Or will we use the collective power of our government to expand bandwidth to more consumers, to create more entrepreneurial opportunity?
I’ve warned before that online publishers must not fall into the trap of acting like newsroom reports, afraid to take a stand on any issue. Access to bandwidth is the issue that will nurture, or kill, online news and information businesses in the years to come. If you’re publishing online, you need to fight for your access to bandwidth – and your potential audience’s access to it, as well.